Saudi Arabia’s capital and largest city is situated on a large rocky plateau in the continental interior of the Arabian Peninsula.
It was once a small desert oasis where dates were cultivated but it rose to prominence in 1902 when King Abdul Aziz set off to unify the Kingdom. In 1932 the city was made the country capital and its development was further fuelled by the discovery of oil.
Today the city is primarily a business and shopping destination, its climate is harsh and sights few. Pockets of the old can still be found: in the midst of shiny skyscrapers one can see ancient mosques, shady trees and occasional camels.
But the glitzy modern metropolis never lets you forget that it is run on strictly Islamic moral and cultural codes. Note that women are not allowed access to certain attractions and sites and are not allowed to drive cars.
In general, Riyadh is hot and dry. Summer temperatures reach up to 45C, but winters can be quite cold, at night temperatures can sometimes even plunge to zero. Rainfall is rare but what rain there is falls mostly in March and April.
January average temperature 14 deg Celsius 13 mm rainfall February average temperature 16 deg Celsius, 10 mm rainfall March average temperature 21 deg Celsius, 30 mm rainfall April average temperature 26 deg Celsius, 30 mm rainfall May average temperature 32 deg Celsius, 13 mm rainfall June average temperature 34 deg Celsius, 0 mm rainfall July average temperature 36 deg Celsius, 0 mm rainfall August average temperature 35 deg Celsius, 0mm rainfall September average temperature 32 deg Celsius, 0 mm rainfall October average temperature 27 deg Celsius, 0 mm rainfall November average temperature 21 deg Celsius, 5 mm rainfall December average temperature 16 deg Celsius, 10 mm rainfall
Riyadh is served by the King Khaled Airport (RUH), located around 35 km north of the city. The extensive airport has three terminals. Terminal 1 is used by the international carriers.
Taxis are available at the rank outside the terminal. Make a price is agreed on before the ride. The trip to the city takes 30 minutes in good traffic conditions and costs around SR 70-90. Hotel limousines are a good alternative and not much more expensive than taxis.
Riyadh is a car oriented city, with a shabby public transportation network. The city has no street addresses, so you have to orient yourself by major attractions and known landmarks in the vicinity of the places you want to reach.
White taxis are used by most visitors to navigate the city. Some Taxi drivers speak English, others don’t. Most are familiar with the major landmarks.
Minibuses have a fixed rate of SR 2 and ply the city streets on numerous routes but these are only published in Arabic.
Hiring a car is the best way of traversing the city although the traffic can seem quite aggressive to the foreigner. Note that it is illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh is not a pedestrian friendly city. There are few walkways and pedestrian bridges in the modern part of the city. In al-Bathaa, however, walking is the only way of getting around due to the ancient narrow streets.
The Saudi prince-owned center boasts an award winning oval shaped building featuring a three level shopping mall, hundreds of stores, hotels, apartments, restaurants and spas.
Address: Deira (next to Musmak Fortress)
This is the best known of all Riyadh souqs, with all imaginable goods on sale. You can find carpets, coffee pots, daggers, jewelry and more, some of it cheap, some expensive, but whichever it is, do not forget to haggle.
Even though virtually no Saudi plays golf, Riyadh has several good golf courses in and around the city, among which is the Arizona Golf Resort (www.agr.com.sa/), popular with expats, and the Dirab Golf Course (www.dirabgolf.com/) featuring a resident golfing tutor.
The tower is 300 meters tall and is the tallest structure in Saudi Arabia. It is owned by the prince of Saudi’s royal family. It features the headquarters of the prince’s holding company. The east wing is taken by an award-winning shopping center, the tower itself won the 2002 Emporis Skyscraper Award for design and functionality.
RIYADH MUSEUM OF HISTORY AND ARCHAEOLOGY
Address: West of the old city centre, Al-Bathaa Phone: (0)1 419 1210
This museum features local art and culture and ancient artifacts. It also gives a glimpse into the diverse history of the Arabian kingdoms.
AL MUSMAK CASTLE
Address: Al-Bathaa, city centre Open: Saturday – Thursday: 8:00 am – noon & 4:00 pm – 9:00 pm Men have access only on Saturday, Monday and Wednesday Women may visit on other days, accompanied by male family members. Families can visit only on Thursdays Admission: Free
The mud brick castle was built around 1865 and is associated with the foundation of the Saudi Arabian kingdom. It was recently renovated and is now a museum where visitors can explore the Sitting Room, the Mosque, the Castle Gate, the well, and the Watch Towers which sit on all the four corners of the castle.
AL MURABBA’A PALACE
Address: Khazzan Street Phone: (0)1 401 1999 Open: daily 9:00 am – 12:00 noon & 2:00 pm – 9:00 pm. Saturdays closed Women may only visit with male family members on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons Admission: Free
This old mud brick palace was built by King Abdul Aziz after he conquered Masmak Fortress. The palace bears the reminder of the past and visitors can see how Arabian royalty once lived. You can visit the guard's room and storerooms, the reception salons, political offices and private apartments. Among items on display is also the first royal Rolls Royce.
AL FOUTA PARK
Address: by the side of Imam Faisal bin Turki Street (Khazan) Entrance free
The oldest park in the city, it opened four or five decades ago and extends over an area of 40,000 square meters. It features big shady trees, myriads of flowers, green areas and long walkways. A great place to unwind, take a stroll or take kids to play. The park also features a cafeteria.
Eating out is one of the few entertainment activities available in Riyadh for visitors and the city offers a good selection of restaurants of many cuisines. The most expensive and exquisite restaurants are found in top hotels, and the budget ones are mostly small Pakistani and Indian eateries. Fast food chain restaurants are available in the city’s various malls. The Olaya District has a multitude of restaurants ranging from Chinese, Mexican, French, Lebanese, American, to Indian and are all located quite near each other.
Address: Al Aruba Street Phone: +966 1 211 1888 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
A trendy restaurant located on the 77th floor of the Kingdom Tower - the tallest building in the city. It serves a diverse selection of food, including steak, seafood, pasta, salad, and teppanyaki. The restaurant also offers a great view of the city if you can manage to get window seats.
Address: 330 King Abdul Azeez Street Open: 24 hrs Phone: +966 1 476 0000 / +966 1 478 0696
This restaurant serves authentic Arabic food, as well as continental cuisine. It is located in the four star Al Mutlaq hotel.
Address: Osama bin Zaed Street Phone: +966 1 230 3746 / +966 1 231 5086
The ultimate restaurant when it comes to exotic delicacies, serving Lebanese, as well as Saudi, and grilled food. The chefs there are highly esteemed.
Assaraya Turkish Restaurant
Address: Talateen Street
The delicious Turkish restaurant boasts great service and reasonable prices. Amongst its delicacies are clay pot chicken or lamb, meat kebabs and pita bread.
The largest, oldest, most prominent Motor Show and market in the region attracts top manufacturers from around the globe to display their new products.
Date: the ninth month in the Islamic calendar
Ramadan is a month dedicated to fasting. Muslims are not permitted to eat, drink and smoke during the day. On this occasion, visitors are also requested to respect the same in public. In addition, the majority of restaurants and eateries are shut during this time.
Date: at the end of the Ramadan
The festival marks the end of the fasting month Ramadan, and the whole country celebrates with feasts, holidays and daytrips, and people wear their best clothes. Note that during this time most establishments are closed.
Nightlife in Riyadh is vastly different than in the Western world. Alcohol in Saudi Arabia is expressly forbidden, even in the hotels and use or handling of alcohol is severely punished.
There are no bars, nightclubs or discos. Restaurants serve non-alcoholic beer and non-alcoholic cocktails. There are no cinemas either. Even the shisha (smoking) cafes are banned from the city center. They can, however be found outside the city limits on, for example, Thumamah Street.
There are numerous traditional cafes as well as Western-style coffee shops in the city. Many are to be found in the city center, especially on the Tahlia Street (Prince Mohammed Bin Abdul Aziz Street) in Olaya. Nightlife starts after the evening prayer when the sun sets and the temperature is lower.
Riyadh was originally an oasis at the confluence of several riverbeds, known as Hajar. It produced huge amounts of dates and the Arabic name for orchard is rowdah. Eventually the entire settlement got to be known by that name and the oasis remained undisturbed throughout much of the history. From the 17th Century onwards, most of the Arabian Peninsula was ruled by the Al-Sauds. In the 18th century the Egyptians and the Ottoman Turks took over, until the 20th century brought change.
MODERN (20TH CENTURY)
King Abdul Aziz raided and seized the city in 1902 and set off to unify the Kingdom in the years from 1904 to 1925. The city was made the capital of Saudi Arabia when he declared it a country in 1932. At first the city was not the seat of government and commerce, however, and it was not until the 1970s that Riyadh rose to power, as political bodies and industry were pushed to move there. The oil industry brought earnings which brought about the city’s modernization, and futuristic infrastructure.
Riyadh’s population has grown enormously since its humble beginnings. Today the capital of Saudi Arabia is riding high on the money oil makes, and boasts the title of one of the richest and most flourishing cities in the world.
Riyadh is a very strict city; in fact it is one of the most conservative in Saudi Arabia. It is the strictest city concerning nightclubs, alcohol and clothing (for men and women). Alcohol is forbidden by law. Even small violations lead to prosecution and strict punishment.
Women are not allowed to drive cars or ride bicycles on public roads. They are also advised to avoid eye contact with men, as a simple smile can be grossly misinterpreted.
Dress modestly. Men should avoid wearing shorts above the knee, and women should avoid wearing tight clothes, and instead opt for baggy, loose fitting clothes with arms, legs, shoulders and head always covered.
Local women must wear the traditional headscarf (hijab) and long black garment covering the entire body (abaya). Western women and non-Muslim women are only required to cover their heads but not wear the full abaya.
Respect segregation between the sexes. There is little or no touching between men and women when greeting in public. The standard greeting is Assalam alaikum (‘Peace be upon you') and the reply is Wa alaikum assalam (‘And upon you too be peace').
Keeping face is of great importance, so try not to lose your temper. Avoid conversations on politics and religion. Also, it is considered ultimate rudeness to show disrespect for ones family name or tribe.
Use only your right hand for greeting and giving or receiving things. Remove your shoes before entering a carpeted room.
Riyadh has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. But nevertheless, take the standard precautions. The city is one of the most conservative in Saudi Arabia. The muttawa or religious police are zealous volunteers who aim to propagate virtue and the Riyadh region is known to be the strictest. Visitors usually get off with a verbal warning but note that the muttawa have jurisdiction for detainment if there is a suspicion of un-Islamic conduct. The suspected must be handed to the police but reports of abuse and even deaths during custody still occur.
Segregation pervades all areas of society, so that single men and women have no possibility of interaction. There are three groups in regular society: families, single men, and single women. Families form the basic nucleus of Saudi society. Segregation of the sexes is present in banks, hotels, restaurants, museums, coffee shops, shopping malls, etc. Separate days are designated for families, single women (rarely) and men. All men are considered single men or bachelors, married or not, who are in public without their wife or family. They are not allowed in the company of any woman who is not their wife or a family member. Special bachelor sections in restaurants exist. Single women are the most restricted group. It is of course against the law to be accompanied anywhere by a man who is not your husband or a family member.
The most severe crimes are, apart from the obvious murder and theft, are adultery, homosexuality and possession of alcohol or drugs.
Demonstrations and political gatherings are best avoided. Homosexual behavior and adultery are illegal and can carry the death penalty. Photographing local people, government buildings, military installations and palaces is not allowed. Women are not permitted to drive. It is illegal to hold two passports and will be confiscated if discovered by the authorities.
Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country and the official Islamic religion pervades all aspects of life there. Alcohol is forbidden. There are no bars and alcohol is not served anywhere, regardless of your religious persuasion. It may, however, be found at private parties, but bear in mind that corporal punishment does exist. It is rare for Westerners, but has nevertheless happened occasionally.
It is prohibited to publicly display non-Islamic religious articles. Crosses and Bibles are not permitted in the country. Also, pork products are not allowed in the country. Travel to Mecca and Medina is forbidden to non-Muslims. During Ramadan eating, drinking and smoking during daylight hours should be discreet as it is forbidden by the Muslim culture.
Emergency Phone Numbers
Ambulance: 997 Police: 999 Emergency/ Traffic accident: 993 Fire: 998 International operator: 901 International directory: 900
King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center: 800-124-8999 (one of the major medical centers in Riyadh)
US Consulate Riyadh
Public hours: Saturdays, Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, 1:00pm to 3:30pm. (CLOSED ON MONDAYS) Web: riyadh.usembassy.gov/ Phone: (966)(1)488-3800, Ext. 4664 or 4315 Fax: (966)(1)488-7670 ACS E-mail Inquiries: RiyadhACS@state.gov